07 July, 2009

The Narrator

You may have heard Roger Federer played a little tennis this weekend against Andy Roddick. After knocking the ball around for 4 1/2 hours, Roger had more little numbers on the scoreboard than Andy, and that difference was worth an extra 425,000 British pounds (which is like $70,000,000,000 or some such after applying the exchange rate; I don't know) and a chunk of history because it was the 15th time Roger has won one of the big 4 tournaments. Nobody's ever won the last point at a major tournament so many times.

The match, though, has given us, "The Narrative." For a prime example, see this article by Boris Becker, "Roddick Stopped Believing.

Boris was a brilliant if unstable tennis player and the youngest Wimbledon champ ever. I listened to his commentary on the BBC broadcast of several matches and found his commentary misleading over and over again. This article is no different. And in the scheme of things it doesn't really matter, but if you happen to bat the tennis ball around for a hobby commentators like Boris Becker can ruin your day.

The Narrative goes like this. Roddick never believed he could win that match, and he revealed that deficiency over a 3 minute span toward the end of the second set. He built up a 6-2 lead in the tiebreak, and only needed to hit one more good shot take a 2-0 lead in sets against Roger. But, you see, Roger has beaten Andy 19 of the last 21 times they've played, and Andy's 2 wins were in relatively unimportant tournaments. On this big a stage, Andy knew deep down in his heart he never had a chance.

That deep inner doubt is why, when Roger hit a duck of a high forehand at 6-5 in the tiebreak, Roddick shanked away his chance at greatness.


Wrong because it's a narrative after the fact. Wrong because that thinking won't help Andy win the next match. Wrong because it misses the point of what was really happening out there. Wrong because when us average Joe's get out on a tennis court and try to win an important match all we're going to remember is that we have to believe to win, and that's a lie. The truth is more complex, but TV commentary can't really do complex.

At 6-2 Federer pulled Roddick wide to the forehand and Roddick replied with a flat shot down the line. That put the ball on Federer's side of the court very quickly. In fact, Federer received the ball while Roddick was still standing about 15 feet to the right of where he needed to be to continue the point successfully. Federer simply hit the ball 30 feet to Roddick's left and the score went to 6-3.

The commentators (Becker not among them) praised the brilliance of Federer's backhand shot. I don't want to take anything away from Federer, but once Roddick went down the line, the "winner" was a routine stroke. No brilliance was required. Literally, any of 100,000 top club players could have won that point from that position. Maybe Federer used some special sauce in hitting the simple winner, but Roddick gifted him with that point. (See for yourself at the 5:00 mark of this video The Tiebreak.)

The correct shot was crosscourt, but Andy hoped to surprise Federer with the unexpected gamble. He figured he could "beat him down the line," but actually Roger was in control of the point. Andy brain-cramped and paid for it.

Roger then hits two good serves. After the poor play he demonstrated at the beginning of the tiebreak, it was about time he hit a couple good ones.

At 6:30 in the same video, you see Andy hit a second serve that Roger returns passively. Andy decides to attack the net. He hits the right shot and he hits it adequately, then Roger tries to go down the line with his passing shot when crosscourt would have been a better decision. Federer's forehand is mishit and goes much higher than he really intended, putting Andy in an awkward predicament. The high backhand volley is one of the hardest shots in tennis and Federer's ball may be going out. Andy's in the driver's seat, but he's not sure where to go. He decides the ball is probably going out, but that he'd better hit it anyway. That's always a tough decision.

When you swing at a ball you believe is headed out, it's almost a guarantee you're going to hit an inferior shot. Roddick pushed his backhand volley wide. It happens to the best of them, and in fact it did just then. You can rewind it and watch it happen over and over and over again. I'm sure Andy is not doing that, but the commentators have all christened that the stroke that decided the match.

Yes, that mistake was unfortunate. If Roger hits a better pass, I'm betting Andy hits a better volley. But tennis is like that.

Under pressure, Andy reverted to his most natural game. He'd been playing a new style all day, and doing a fantabulous job of it, but in the pressure of a tiebreak he reverted to his old style. The knock on Andy has always been gambling too soon and being afraid to move up to net. He gambled badly at 6-2 and he lost his feeling for the net at 6-5. Andy played a brilliant match to get himself to that point, and to give himself the chances he did. Andy played the right match to get to where he was, and it was not a natural style for him. What he'd done to get to 6-5 in the second set tiebreak was nothing short of amazing.

So what happened to end the dream?

There is a magic juice in tennis. If you've got it, you're going to win the point and if the opponent has it, he's going to win. That juice is called focus. Focus is what allows a man to return a 140 mph serve. Literally, between the time a 140 mph serve leaves the racket and the time it whistles past your ear, you cannot blink twice. In order to put a tennis racket in the path of that ball, at the exactly angle required to make the ball travel back into the far court, you must have focus. It's an almost inconceivable degree of connection between the eyes and the hand, leaving the brain almost entirely out of the picture.

Focus consumes energy like like a Rottweiller eats Scooby-snacks ... and you only have so many Scooby-snacks in your lunchbox. When you start a tennis match, you have a level of energy. Burn it too quickly, and you'll find yourself out of gas. You can tell when a player is out of gas, because he takes unjustified risks and misses. You can tell when a player is focused, because he does exactly what he should do and does it with a margin of safety, even when it's almost physically impossible.

Roddick showed every sign of losing focus in that tiebreak. He brain cramped at 6-2 and he shanked a makeable volley at 6-5. At 6-6 he dropped the ball while bouncing it prior to his second serve, approached on a weak shot, and missed a slightly difficult half-volley. At 6-7 he drove a backhand long. Federer, on the other hand, displayed perfect focus in the second half of the tiebreak. He did nothing amazing, and he did everything with a margin of safety.

Certainty that you are hitting the right shot can increase your focus. Fear that you might be making a mistake can dispell focus. The confidence of having beaten a man 19 times can increase focus. Having tasted defeat at your opponent's hands pressures your focus. Having a voice in your head narrating the hideous, secret, real reason you're making human mistakes can bleed focus dry. All those things were weighing on Roddick, but he was managing them successfully. Clear up to 15-14 in the 5th set tiebreak, Roddick managed all those things. The one thing Andy could not manage was fatigue.

Fatigue makes cowards of us all (Lombardi and Patton), and Roddick was significantly more fatigued than Federer. On Wednesday, Federer demolished Karlovic. On Wednesday Roddick poured his heart into a 5 set match against Leyton Hewitt. On Friday Federer embarassed Hass. On Friday Roddick played 4 crisis sets against Andy Murray and all of England. Federer came into Sunday's match with a full tank and a reserve of confidence Roddick could not begin to match.

The Narrative is that Roddick choked at the threshold of greatness. The reality is that fatigue caused him to lose focus. The man's problem was being human, not some intangible lack of belief or cowardice. The difference that distinction makes on the court on July 5th is nill, but come the US Open the difference will be massive. If Roddick believed The Narrative (he won't), he'd go out on court and at the critical moment there would be one more burden on his shoulders as he struggled for focus. He'll already have to fight fear, fatigue, and pressure, but The Narrative adds to that already herculean burden the special fear that he must be a choker. If, however, he believes the truth, that he fought to the limits of human endurance over 5 days and almost pulled off the upset of the championships anyway, he'll head into Flushing Meadows with an increased confidence that might actually sharpen his focus at just the right moment.

Life is like that. We all have a Narrator in our heads, the Boris Becker of our minds. When Roddick drops that ball at 6-6 just before serving Becker exclaims, "Oh my God!" We've all heard that frightened, little squeal in our minds over nothings. The Boris in our heads is misleading us, and when we follow him it's down the path of our own failure. At the moment of truth, his voice can be the thing that finally blurs our focus.

This little game we call Life is played with people's hearts, and every mistake costs someone - sometimes dearly. We need that focus every time we struggle to love an annoying relative, to overcome a besetting addiction, or to give when we'd much rather grasp greedily our gifts.

127 men lost Wimbledon, and I think most of us lose at life, too. It's just a matter of degree. Roddick lost after winning 6 rounds, and he needs to remember his success. When we lose, it's important to hear the Spirit's healing voice in our ears, because every time we lend our ears to our inner Boris, and thereby expose our hearts to Satan's lies, we weaken ourselves against the next match.

Today's lesson is that we need to make sure we're not misled by the Narrators all around us, and especially not by that one in our head.

May the Spirit guide you.


Kansas Bob said...

Sorry to read that about Becker.. do you think he is somewhat anti-American or just a jerk?

Kevin Knox said...

My guess? He's one of those brilliant, natural talents who would make a terribly coach. He's so intuitively good at the game that never really learned what he was doing. That, and he's really a little bit nuts.

Kansas Bob said...

I can see him being nuts.. that guy had to have landed on his a bit given the way that he used to dive all over the place when he played.. the English grass may have been forgiving but maybe not so much the hard-courts of NYC :)

Kansas Bob said...

..land on his head a bit..

Rich said...

Love the parallels with life you drew, Kevin.

And I'm really hoping for Andy come early September. The way he's playing and believing, he's got a chance. His birthday always falls right around that time - I remember the New York crowds singing him happy birthday the year before he won (but played well) - and he'll have all the backing that Murray had at Wimbledon, and then some. Nadal should be back, and Federer's just won two in a row. A few of the lesser known Americans usually pull an upset or two. Should be some pretty fun tennis.

Plus, there's night tennis, and that's -- excuse the old expression -- the bomb!